You probably don’t even notice it – if you’re from the South, you probably don’t even say it – if you say it, you probably see no problem with it. But I’m here to share why one of the most common greetings has GOT to go: calling people ‘guys.’
It’s a simple, harmless greeting, a way to get people’s attention, a way to speak to a group of people – I hear it (and used to say it) hundreds of times a day – at the store, at school, in the office, to family and friends, anywhere there are people, you will hear the greeting ‘hey guys.’
‘Guys’ has morphed into what society uses and accepts as a gender-neutral term referring to men, women, boys, and girls, and it wasn’t until a year after having my second daughter that I somehow noticed myself saying it. I don’t know what it was that caught my attention from something that flew off my tongue without thought, but something made me pause one day.
Guys, stop calling everyone guys
Do I want to spread this notion that my daughters’ identity can flippantly be interchanged with ‘guy’? Would we ever call my nephew ‘girl’? Never, of course, it’s laughable. I am determined to raise my children with strength, kindness, and respect of everyone’s individuality, and as much as people want to make gender lines blurred or invisible these days, my daughters are girls, not boys.
There is a difference in men and women, and differences are good – they should be celebrated. From that day on, I caught myself before using ‘guys’ and pointed out when my daughter used it, too, so I could correct it while she’s young.
It’s just a word, so what?
Many argue that there is no problem using this term, and internationally-acclaimed keynote speaker Avril Henry says, “As a feminist I think we need to choose our battles carefully to ensure we pursue gender equality – but not at the expense of alienating men and the broader public.”
Ms. Henry, I couldn’t disagree with you more.
She goes on to say, “Most women, myself included, use the term ‘guys’ as a non-gender-specific term. Language is important but we could end up creating greater confusion and resentment by being seen to be politically correct… I think there are far more important gender equality issues to focus on – such as pay inequality.”
It’s not the language that is important here, it’s the nuance behind it. It’s the fact that a group of men and women would never be called “girls” or “gals,” because THAT would be offensive. So why are women just meant to accept being called guys? Because that’s just the way things are? Why is it that a man is called a “girl” or “Sally” in jest to criticize him but everyone just accepts men and women being called guys?
Challenging the norm
Just because we use ‘guys’ as a “non-gender-specific term” doesn’t mean it’s right. Just because something is the way it is doesn’t make it right.
It makes me cringe that Henry asserts that feminists need to choose battles carefully so as not to alienate men and the general public.
How about feminists, who are anyone that believes men and women should have equal rights and opportunities socially, politically, and economically, just pay attention to and stick up for what’s right. We don’t want to alienate men by women not wanting to be CALLED men? I’m sorry, but give me a break. How would men like it if the socially accepted term was ‘ladies’ or ‘gals’?
Are we that worried about men’s fragility that women have to sacrifice their gender identity for them? From all the men I know, the answer is no, we do not need to worry.
Instead of “creating greater confusion” by NOT calling women guys, how about we eliminate the subtle yet oh-so-in-your-face confusion that men are the dominant gender?
It’s time to check and correct
Pointing out the social norm of ‘guys’ isn’t to criticize anyone who uses it; I don’t believe there is anyone who says this maliciously – but it is a call to check yourself and our accepted norms and correct this. It’s not a tall request yet has significant implications – and if you can’t see the significance of its detriments, it just proves the deep-seated nature of our male-dominated society.
If we never questioned ourselves or society’s norms, where would we be? Traditions and values can be wonderful but also dangerous, which is why I think they need to be questioned and thoughtfully challenged.
Feminism in the classroom
This reminds of being back in the classroom where I was teaching a feminism unit to high school seniors and we were discussing names- what does your last name mean to you? The boys and girls resoundingly answered the same – there was no distinction between their answers.
It’s my identify, who I am, where I come from. It’s on my jersey. It’s me.
Then why are women expected to so readily, no questions asked, give up their name? Or, questions can be asked if they ultimately surrender.
This made some students pause and question, but still boys and girls were okay with it.
But what if we switched it up, I proposed. What if men were expected to take the woman’s name?
Well that caused an absolute uproar. I mean a serious I’m 18-years-old and know everything and you’re speaking in tongues uproar – I mean one student had to be sent to the dean, one in the hall, and one to the counselor next door because of the barbaric way they escalated an academic conversation – but that’s a story for another time.
Switch it up
The thing is, nothing seems absurd until we switch it- man for woman, white for black, Christian for Muslim. It all feels comfortable and right in its nice, neat little box formed by our white/male-dominated society – this isn’t a slam on men, this isn’t saying I hate men and they’re the problem – this is the backbone of our society though. It’s who we are. It’s how we run. It’s what “works.”
But no, it doesn’t work. Maybe the term ‘guys’ being accepted and propagated as a gender-neutral term feels so small and silly, but where does it stop?
Making a change
I challenge you to make a change – don’t call a group of men and women ‘guys;’ don’t call a group of women ‘guys;’ don’t call your boys and girls ‘guys.’ Catch yourself. Catch your friends. Make a change.
Does this seem too difficult? Does it seem too silly and inconsequential? ‘Guys’ might be technically inaccurate, but it’s not hurting anyone – why would I need to change?
Challenge yourself – it’s a great part of personal growth, and in this case, an important societal change. Fight pass the typical lazy excuses and make the change.
I relate to sociology professor Sherryl Kleinman who stated the following:
“It’s no accident that “man” is the anchor in our language and “woman” is not. And of course we should make social change all over the place. But the words we use can also reinforce current realities when they are sexist (or racist or heterosexist). Words are tools of thought. We can use words to maintain the status quo or to think in new ways — which in turn creates the possibility of a new reality. It makes a difference if I think of myself as a “girl” or a “woman.” It makes a difference if we talk about “Negroes” or “African-Americans.” Do we want a truly inclusive language or one that just pretends?” (Qualitative Sociology 2002).
Yes, Ms. Kleinman – words are tools of thought and can reflect far beyond its linguistic definition, making them so powerfully dangerous because we’re not even aware of the problem and implications to begin with. They’re just there. They just happen. They’re a part of us.
I can’t help but make racial comparisons to how a societal norm just became the way of life. Hopefully that disturbs you. Hopefully that makes you shudder, but most importantly makes you think.
If not guys, then what?
This is a fair question – the English language doesn’t seem to offer a clear-cut simple gender-neutral greeting, but here are some alternatives:
- Friends, folks, everyone (pretty universal applications)
- Gang (use for family and friends)
- Y’all (I’m trying to bring this to the Midwest! My personal favorite)
- Guys and girls; boys and girls (great in school)
- Team (perfect for the office); colleagues (formal office feel, works well in email)
Change is hard, but you will survive
In the grand scheme of things, this is a simple request, a basic change that will take a small amount of effort. Start the change now; challenge your friends and colleagues; teach your parents, teach your children. Consider how terrifying the world would be if nobody challenged racial norms. Consider how you (hopefully) shudder when you hear someone from an older generation use a racial slur in common conversation because they were never challenged (or were too lazy) to make a change?
Nobody said it was easy; but y’all will survive.